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Photo Essay: Rattlesnake Creek Dam Removal and Restoration

Water flows in foreground with town in backgroundWith support from the Open Rivers Fund, a program run by the Resources Legacy Fund, our Dams and Watershed Health team, Heidi Ballard, Ryan Meyer, and Chris Jadallah traveled to Missoula, Montana in July 2019 to observe and participate in the environmental monitoring associated with the removal of Rattlesnake Creek Dam. Through meetings and hands-on experience, we got an up-close look at both the promise and the challenges of monitoring collaborations focused on dam removal. 

Water flows in front of a damThe Rattlesnake Creek Dam was originally built in 1904 to provide water for Missoula. However, the dam was decommissioned in 1983 and structural damage constitutes a safety hazard. Further environmental concerns such as the ability of native fish to reach their spawning habitat prompted the dam removal and creek restoration efforts. Organizations involved with the dam removal plan to restore a vibrant watershed that supports healthy ecosystems and communities. 
 

One man points and explains map while another man holds up mapThe dam is currently set to be removed by 2020 and the restoration completed by 2021. The dam removal will allow native, migratory fish such as the threatened bull trout to return Rattlesnake Creek to spawn. Additionally, recreational enhancements will benefit the local community by facilitating improved access to open space. 

People gather in a circle to examine paperwork and talkThe City of Missoula, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Montana Trout Unlimited, and Watershed Education Network are working together to develop a monitoring program to answer questions about how the dam removal impacts the watershed. This project provides an interesting case study for us to look at how partners are tackling the tricky challenge of integrating professional and volunteer monitoring. Volunteers learn how to evaluate biological, chemical, and physical conditions and become stakeholders in the health of the riparian ecosystem. Involving community members in environmental monitoring can create powerful opportunities for place-based, environmental science education and broader community impacts tied to stewardship, civic action, and social learning.

People examine bugs in containers on a table, one bug sits on a spoonMacroinvertebrates, organisms that can be seen with the naked eye and lack backbones, are an important food source for native fish as well as a key indicator of stream health. Mayfly nymphs, like the specimen pictured above, are one of many macroinvertebrates that live in riparian ecosystems. Standardized assessments by citizen scientists help track macroinvertebrates over time. Scientists and conservation managers can then use that information in their stream management decisions. 

Researchers wade in flowing waterRyan and Chris take measurements of Rattlesnake Creek. Measuring the physical dimensions of a stream, including depth, width, and pebble/rock size can provide information on how streams flow and how the dam removal will impact the stream composition. Citizen scientists will take stream measurements at regular intervals over upcoming years to track how the stream conditions change over time. 

Researchers collect water samplesHeidi tests the water quality of Rattlesnake Creek. The amount of oxygen in water is vital to the health of aquatic organisms and water contamination has a direct impact on the people, plants, and wildlife in the area. While trying out these techniques, we discussed a variety of topics, such as learning goals of the monitoring project, decision-making process that led to their particular mix of methods and protocols, participant training, and data quality control.

Researchers smile at camera with green field and blue sky behind themAfter participating in the Rattlesnake Creek Dam restoration project, we came away with a greater understanding of how partner organizations in Missoula developed and conducted their environmental monitoring project and the different roles professional and citizen monitors played in piecing together a broad picture of environmental health. The trip also emphasized the importance of complementary organizations working together to achieve a common goal. We had a wonderful experience in Missoula, taking away many important lessons for our ongoing work, and we look forward to working with our awesome collaborators again! 

Special thanks to Mackenzie Carter, volunteer with the Center for Community and Citizen Science, for developing this photo essay. 

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